This is not a story to pass on: The Life of Margaret Garner and These United States.
Words by Joshua Thompson
Perhaps the most tragic and culturally traumatic feature of the first season of Melanated Moments in Classical Music is Episode 3, Laureate Libretto. The process of performance highlighted, in all its somber beauty, betrays the very real and devastating realities of a country steeped in a quagmire of hypocrisy, evil and structural injustice. The story of Margaret Garner (a woman who escaped the institution of slavery with her family only to be recaptured) and her decision to murder one of her children rather than subject it to another lifetime of enslavement, is not unique. The practice of suicide and infanticide was quite common among enslaved peoples from the start of the global slave trade until the abolition of the cruel institution. What is worth noting, however, is how this particular story casts a haunting and inescapable shadow over this country with regards to the conceptualization of people, property, freedom and the paradigm of state’s rights vs. federal jurisdictions. Understandably, the thought of infanticide elicits the most polarizing of opinions, but the cultural context of 19th century America serves as a somewhat convincing catalyst in the decision-making process of Margaret Garner.
The set-up for this true story goes back to 1787 with the Congressional ratifications of the Three-Fifths Compromise and continues well into the next century with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Dred Scott case of 1857. Each piece of federal legislation confined the life of Margaret Garner, her progeny, and countless other enslaved peoples to an inescapable station as property and not people. Additionally, they also framed and reinforced a highly contested debate about the supremacy of state’s rights over federal edict – an ongoing debate of this Republic that continues to manifest itself in the 21st century. The trial and verdict of the Margaret Garner case reveals the diseased heart of this country. While the emotional and moral issue of infanticide rests uneasily on the surface; to America, the more egregious offense was the loss and destruction of property. Garner was convicted on these charges and not murder. Not until 1868 with the ratification of the 14th Amendment (which provided equal protection under the law) do social constraints begin to loosen their grip on the lives of those descended from slavery. The same forces of opposition in the lives of marginalized peoples continue as evidenced by historic court cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Brown v. Board of Education, Tokpeka (1954), Roe v. Wade (1973) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015.)
As I reflect on the tumultuous summer of 2020 from my hometown of Indianapolis, I know exactly why some of my fellow citizens have a more visceral response to the destruction of property in response to continued racial unrest and protest. Our not-so-distant past has cultivated and nurtured a society that conditions compassion for the inanimate and profit driven over the human condition. With this cruel lesson yet to be learned, Toni Morrison penned it best in her final chapter of Beloved, “This is not a story to pass on.” And yet, as an opera and as a stirring incentive to reconcile our past, present and future; “This is not a story to pass on.”
Listen to Laureate Libretto from Season One of Melanated Moments in Classical Music here, or on your favorite podcast platform. Find the opera Margaret Garner on YouTube.